Quite a day. Two Glasgow bucket list musts ticked off in a couple of hours: Crabshakk restaurant and Barrowland Ballroom. A reward – after two intense days of butcher awards judging – of a feast of fresh seafood in still hip Finnieston, then Father John Misty in full sardonic flow at the legendary Gallowgate venue. For all this I had the blessing earlier in the day of Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross, as breathtaking as ever on its astral perch in the Kelvingrove Museum.
It’s the kind of fervent embrace I’ve come to expect from that great sandstone city on the Clyde. On previous visits I’ve rigorously researched Glasgow’s thriving food and drink scene or thrown myself into its rich musical heritage. Yet there were always gaps to be filled.
Thanks to the judging invitation from the Q Guild (from bacon to rib-eye via sausages, pies and stir-fries it was a lot of fun) and a handy Merchant City base in the Moxy Hotel I had time to explore. Extra time thanks to rail strikes extending my stay.
King Tut’s, St Lukes, Oran Mor – I’d done them all on that specifically music trip but I’d only stared across at the Barrowland from The Gate cocktail bar opposite. In the absence of a gig that night, the famous Technicolor lights were out. The raucous Father John Misty concert more than made up (even if lonesome me was adopted by the Glaswegian equivalent of Beavis and Butt-Head bellowing out the lyrics they knew by heart).
Dining solo at Crabshakk was an altogether more sedate affair. Even if I probably needed a large bib as I messily ripped into a whole crab at the counter. Contender for most beautiful fish dish of the year so far followed – a tranche of halibut in a tomato miso with a draping of monksbeard.
This brilliant ‘high tea’ made up for a less convincing dining experience the previous evening (in company). Tucked into the Cathedral Hotel, Modern Italian Celetano’s came with a glowing recommendation from The Guardian’s Grace Dent but, fennel salami and a couple of accomplished pasta dishes aside, it didn’t deliver the promised bliss.
It is handy though for a mooch around the spooky Necropolis http://www.glasgownecropolis.org, which looks down on a cityscape packed with steeples and towers. This 19th century burial ground, inspired by Paris’s Pere Lachaise, lies on a ridge close to the city’s pre-industrial centre, rubbing shoulders with the magnificent Gothic Cathedral. For 700 years St Mungo’s tomb has drawn pilgrims there.
The Necropolis boasts 3,500 monuments, commemorating the city’s grandees. More than 50,000 other souls keep therm company from their unmarked graves. The cemetery upkeep is an ongoing challenge, my guide from the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis, told me as we stood beneath the hulking monument to religious reformer John Knox (“he is Edinburgh, nothing to do with us really.”).
Glasgow-based journalist Peter Ross in his great celebration of Britain’s graveyards, A Tomb With a View (Headline, £20), says the Knox statue “functions as a sort of Statute of llliberty, representing all that is stern and joyless and unbending about Scotland”.
His own favourite Glasgow cemetery is the gentler Cathcart on the Southside; for Gothic ghoulish, though, head for the Southern Necropolis, across the Clyde from Glasgow Green. Here the eerie marble figure known as The White Lady, marking the grave of two women killed by a tram in 1933, is said to turn its head to gaze at passers-by. It’s also the alleged haunt of the Gorbals Vampire with its iron teeth and lust for the blood of local lads.
Such urban folklore is enough to make you turn to drink. Wee drams aside, in this city that’s traditionally been courtesy of Tennent, whose mass market lager brewery looms to the south of the Knox Necropolis. As a family business it predated the boneyard by centuries and there were once genuine fears the arrival of corpses would contaminate its spring water supply.
Tennent’s commitment to the present is undoubtedly its collab with Alloa indie brewers Williams Bros – Drygate, a converted box factory on its estate, now home to a US-style craft brewery tap. The Drygate labels are designed by students from the Glasgow School of Art.
Which leads us neatly to the on-going saga of the iconic Art School building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This was extensively damaged when a blaze broke out late in the summer of 2018 as it neared the end of a £35 million restoration project following a previous fire in May 2014. The scaffolds and tarpaulins remain in place. It will be years yet before the current rescue project is finished.
Born in 1868, policeman’s son Mackintosh had none of the advantages of his architect contemporaries, just more talent. To get a taste of the whole Art Nouveau-dabbling coterie sign up for one of the Mackintosh’s Glasgow Walking Tours or download as self-guided leaflet.They all offer an illuminating introduction to the city as a whole, particularly the Victorian and Edwardian era where the vast wealth raised through shipbuilding and the sugar and tobacco trade was lavished on elaborate architecture.
I like the fact that Mackintosh designed both the main newspaper offices – the Daily Record, all glazed brick down a dark lane (home to vegan cafe and gig venue Stereo) and the Glasgow Herald building, deftly transformed into the panoramic Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Architecture and Design (alas still closed post-pandemic).
My favourite building on our tour had to be James Salmon Junior’s Gaudiesque 1902 St Vincent Street Chambers, nicknamed the ‘Hat Rack’. Small in stature, Salmon was nicknamed the ‘Wee Troot’. A recent bridge over the Clyde has been dubbed the ‘Squinty Bridge’. Yes, the city’s dry humour takes no prisoners.
So much architecture but Glasgow has a wealth of green spaces, too. I love Kelvingrove Park and the shady promenade along the River Kelvin, taking in Kelvingrove Museum. This fantastical Spanish Baroque pile, spring cleaned inside and out two decades ago, houses an eclectic collection of art and objects that takes your breath away – from Rembrandts, Van Goghs and Salvador Dali’s vertiginous Christ of St John of the Cross to armour collections, a stuffed elephant and a dangling Spitfire. It’s a great place to acquaint yourself with Mackintosh’s influence and the contemporaneous Glasgow Boys art movement.
The interior of the Glasgow house where Mackintosh lived with his wife and artistic collaborator Margaret Macdonald has been reassembled up the hill within the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, featuring a definitive collection of his austerely beautiful furniture. From here it’s a 10 minute walk to Byres Street and the West End – the
Bohemian buzz of which would surely have delighted the dandy in Mackintosh.
Much quieter, in the southern approaches of the city, is another green oasis voted Europe’s best park in 2008, Pollok Country Park, home to elegant Pollok House, great walks and the remarkable Burrell Collection Museum – a Mackintosh-free zone.
It is a custom-built modern repository for more than 9,000 objects bought by Sir William Burrell, cannily using wealth from the family shipping business. Chinese, Muslim, Medieval and Gothic treasures rub shoulders with Impressionist masterworks. Unlike the Kelvingrove, it feels uncluttered, displaying at any one time only 20 per cent of the collection. The landmark building reopened last spring after four years shut for water damage repairs.
t is too far out to feature on Glasgow’s official hop on hop off (with commentary) City Sightseeing Tour. This double decker’s circular route takes in the East and West Ends as well as the revitalised banks of the Clyde with its award-winning, Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum. Offering an even more fascinating insight into the city’s past is the People’s Palace on Glasgow Green in the East End. This sandstone working class cultural centre charts everything from tenement poverty to entertainment diversions. Attached to it is the elegant Victorian glasshouse of the Winter Garden.
Nearby you’ll find the Templeton Carpet Factory, modelled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and, of course, The Barrowland Ballroom. Take them both in on a walk up to Merchant City, once home to mansions and markets and now reinvigorated as a creative hub after decades of decay, good for bars and people watching.
It’s after here you start to recognise the grid system Victorian expansion built along. Look down long straight streets and you’ll inevitably see church towers or steeples framed at the end. It all feels uncannily American. Indeed when the cityscape turns hilly around Blythswood Square it might almost be San Francisco. Not quite sure John Knox would have approved.
Fleeting tips on food and drink in Glasgow
Crabshakk, as you already know. The Finnieston original has spawned a sibling up at the Botanical Gardens. Other fish restaurants of note – the veteran bistro Gamba on West George Street and the Finnieston Bar and Restaurant. Nearby Gannet, paragon of Scottish sourcing, is probably the pick of the Argyle Street eateries.
Pubs? My fave remains The State Bar, off Sauchiehall Street, with its glorious Victorian interior, fine cask ales and Glasgow’s longest-running blues jam. In the Merchant City, a short stroll from the Moxy Hotel, is the laid-back Babbity Bowster, named after an old Scottish wedding dance and offering a countrified beer garden at odds with its urban surroundings. Current craft beer mecca is down on Southside – Koelschip Yard with 14 cutting edge keg lines.